Emma Thompson is currently doing a press tour for her new movie Saving Mr Banks, which means I’m being reminded again and again of why she tops my Imaginary Celebrity Friends List. Emma Thompson tends to work in batches so her media appearances are like a visiting comet. You get up early, look at the skies with an Argos telescope, bear the cold and bask in her amazingness while she disses the Hollywood system and the pressures put on young actresses to be skinny.
She’s even witty when discussing the breakdown of her first marriage to Kenneth Branagh. The golden couple parted ways soon after Branagh’s affair with Helena Bonham-Carter in the mid nineties. When asked about her present relationship with Helena, Thompson dismisses any bait with “all blood under the bridge”. She previously spoke about her battle with depression after the very public break-up and it was during this dark chapter she adapted, in an Oscar-winning manner no less, the script for Sense and Sensibility. She went on to set an Academy record for being the only actress to nab awards for both acting and writing. And while enjoying an illustrious career she and her husband Greg Wise adopted a former child soldier from Rwanda who is now a Human Rights lawyer – Emma Thompson is better than all of us. I want her to adopt me and shower me in self-esteem and Jo Malone.
But perhaps the coolest thing she has done is write a sex handbook with illustrations, for her 13 year-old daughter. She wanted to help her navigate the pressures, especially those online, facing young people and to encourage her to listen to her emotions. “If you listen to what’s going on in your emotional language, you will be able to keep the sexual activities safe… The sort of sexual questions being put to young kids is horrifying to me, but that’s what’s out there – boys and girls watching pornography, boys showing girls hardcore porn on their iPhones.”
That kind of empathy was totally lacking in the sex education we were exposed to in my convent. When it came to the particulars of the birds and the bees our religion teacher brought a toothbrush into class one day and asked how many of us would share it. We had just returned from the geography trip and because we were eighteen year old girls, we had spent more time selecting and packing our non-uniform weekend reprieve wardrobe rather than bringing necessary things. Toothbrushes had been silently shared, the moment of intimacy there but un-acknowledged. In response to our teacher’s question most arms shot up. She was aghast and told us we were going to catch all the STIs with that attitude. If putting a toothbrush in your mouth was that fraught with prescription-required danger, I couldn’t even imagine what she would tell us lay in store when you ‘lay’ biblically with a man. If there was no sex in Ireland before The Late Late Show, it seems all that came after was gonorrhea. Next door in the other class the male religion teacher told young women that their desire for oral sex was selfish and that performing it on a man would lead to throat cancer. He must have been delighted when Michael Douglas pinned his on cunnilingus.
While we all laughed after those classes, it was still a tad worrying that this was the standard moral lecturing in most secondary schools. However I think my little sister claims the trophy for most sinister sex-ed – during their final year retreat, in walks a handsome Scottish actor who worked through a catalogue of addictions before finding God and the love of a good fertile woman. He now dedicates his life to shaming teenage girls into tears on the retreat circuit.
When he was done charming the young women with his tale of repentance he brought out the props. Standing in front of a rapt and by now slightly in-love crowd he held up a large pink paper heart, made eye contact with individual souls and told them, “When you sleep with a guy, you’re giving him your heart.” To demonstrate, he ripped a corner off. It fluttered to the ground like a dead petal. “And then you meet someone else…” Another soft rip of craft paper. And so he went through all the rebounds (softly spoken sympathetic tones) and encounters (aggressive tearing) and so on and so forth until he came to end, and everyone’s hypothetical husband. All that was left was a pink shred of paper that had been through the wars. Holding up the little scrap he told the girls, now gone from infatuated to crossed-leg horror, “This is all you’ll have left for the man you marry.” Well that and a dowry of 14 cattle I hope.
Maybe Emma Thompson’s next writing gig should be mass publication of her lovely-sounding sex manual. Less shame and fear, more understanding hugs for all the terrified teenage girls.
Jeanne Sutton @jeannedesutun